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Course Review: Deerhurst Highlands

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Course Review: Deerhurst Highlands (Huntsville, Ont.)

Designer: Bob Cupp/Thomas McBroom (1990)

It may not be largely overlooked and out of fashion, but Deerhurst Highlands still has a unique flair that places it solidly with the legions of courses that have appeared on the Muskoka scene in the 17 years since Bob Cupp and Tom McBroom opened their inaugural cottage country facility.

In the past decade, Muskoka golf has gone from a vague notion to an overblown reality. Within the group of courses that have opened in the past decade (Lake Joseph Club, Rocky Crest, Bigwin Island, Oviinbyrd, Muskoka Bay, Grandview and the like), Deerhurst seems to be the course that garners the least amount of attention. Once heralded as one of the Top 10 courses in Canada, it sat at #30 in the last Score Golf ratings. Not bad to be sure, but behind Rocky Crest, Bigwin and Taboo.

Interesting that it has slipped a touch, because Deerhurst Highlands offers a vision of golf that is distinctly its own, and one that is at once more intriguing, and more frustrating, than most of its competitors in the region.

Let’s get the bad elements out of the way first thing. The much maligned first hole, nothing more than a 4-iron downhill and a pitch to the green, is arguably one of the least appealing opening holes in Canadian golf on any course of significant quality. It is hard to imagine why Cupp would have used this within his routing. By offering a largely blind shot down a steep ridge, it slows play and certainly doesn’t draw players into the round, or for that matter, the second shot, a tricky long uphill par four.

The other issue I have with Deerhurst is the lack of options on several holes. The third, for instance, pitches so severely on the right that recovery is hardly an option.

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I don’t mind the schizophrenic nature of the holes that sit on the flat side of the property (#4 thru #6). However, they are holes that could be almost anywhere and never take advantage of the topography that really makes Muskoka golf unique (interesting to note Cupp would utilize a similar concept in the split between the front and back nine at Beacon Hall).

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The best holes embrace the plunging landscape, like the #7 (opening photo), a cool par five that is probably a nightmare for most high handicappes, and the #10, with its dramatic tee shot and clever green. With the exception of the holes across the road on the front nine, and a couple of flat holes in the middle of the back nine, most of Cupp’s routing for Deerhurst embraces the rolling landscape. And give the designer credit for tackling up hill holes like the 13th, which at 355 yards forces players to consider a couple of possibilities off the tee. Good, solid, if slightly unspectacular golf.

However other holes have failed the test of time. Though there is nothing obviously wrong [photopress:deerhurst17.jpg,full,alignright] with the 8th and 17th — both par threes that share a green surface – it is also hard to imagine a designer using the double green conceit on a course in Muskoka. Similarly technology has left some holes, like par five 14th, in the dust. Only a overly done slight green positioned over a pond keeps this hole from becoming a long four.

Which makes a good transition to Deerhurst’s most intriguing element. There are some holes that are peculiarly rooted in the time in which they were constructed. Though I’ve been told McBroom did the detail work on the greens after Cupp left the project, it is hard to imagine the putting surfaces as anything other than a product of someone who worked at one time for Jack Nicklaus. Nicklaus employed Cupp for 15 years before the designer left to start his own firm in 1984 (for those interested, Glen Abbey was among the courses Cupp did with Nicklaus.) Several holes offer the same slight approach lines that make holes like the third at Glen Abbey so difficult. Take the 16th, for example, a relatively short par four that would appear to ask golfers to take the ball up the left side and away from trouble. However, if that line is taken, the approach is to the thinnest part of a long, but narrow, green that plays over a small creek, one that can be tough to hit even with a short iron.

Truthfully it is rare to see such greens these days. Most designers have opted for greens that are much larger in size and which present players with a broader opportunity to hit more shots. In other spots, like the 10th, with its wildly pitching green, McBroom’s early influence seems to be presents. Either way, Deerhurst’s greens are distinctly a product of their time. Have they aged well? Certainly in comparison to the sedate greens used by designers like Carrick and McBroom (at least up to Carrick’s more intriguing work at Muskoka Bay), Deerhurst offered an alternative that some will surely hate. I think it makes the course more interesting and wish that, upon occasion, McBroom might embrace some of his bolder green contours.

Thankfully Deerhust is more than simply a time capsule that screams 1990s. It continues to be a fun course with some design features that are rarely seen on the Muskoka courses that followed it. Worth checking out, if only to see the work of a designer willing to take some risks.

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Robert Thompson

A bestselling author and award-winning columnist, Robert Thompson has been writing about business and sports, and particularly golf, for almost two decades. His reporting and commentary on golf has appeared in Golf Magazine, the Globe and Mail, T&L Golf and many other media outlets. Currently Robert is a columnist with Global Golf Post, golf analyst for Global News and Shaw Communications, and Senior Writer to ScoreGolf. The Going for the Green blog was launched in 2004.

5 CommentsLeave a comment

  • I first played Deerhurst in the late 90’s, when Score Golf had it ranked in the top 15, I think. I remember being so pumped to play it, and then we get to the first tee and couldn’t see the fairway (none of us had played there before). The second and third holes were OK, but not really memorable and then you cross the road to play 4 to 6. Walking off the 6th green, we were all looking at each other and wondering how this course could be ranked by anyone as one of the best in the nation. By the end of the round, we agreed the course did belong in the Top 100, but having it ranked (at the time) ahead of Brantford, Mississauga, Rosedale, St. Thomas, etc. was just ridiculous.

    Good golf course, but ranked like 12th or wherever Score had it – come on. I had to drive by 12 better golf courses just to get there.

  • Robert, seems to me that you are working very hard to make a not very interesting course into something it isn’t – an enjoyable round of golf.
    Have played it a few times and like it less each time.
    Also worth noting that practise facilities are virtully non-existent and that the marshaling and club house facilities are indifferent at best.
    There are many great rounds of golf to be played in and around Muskoka – but not at Deerhurst.

  • Henny: There is a practice range now — at least a spot to warmup. As for clubhouses, well they don’t even fall into my radar when I’m writing about a course.

  • This is concerning! I have a weekend planned and WAS looking forward to my first round at the Highlands course. Any suggestions on other courses in the area, that you would recommend?

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